John Frayne: Herrera offers delightful portrayal of 'Mikado'

Between March 9 and March 14, I went from a famous French operetta, "Orpheus in the Underworld," by Jacques Offenbach, to W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's masterpiece of English operetta, "The Mikado." Was there something in the water or the air responsible for this onrush of the light, lyrical mood?

The "Mikado" performance was at a concert by the Sinfonia da Camera, conducted by Ian Hobson, and it was "semi-staged."

The singing actors, in full faux-Japanese costume, performed at the front of the stage of the Foellinger Great Hall, and at back stage left, the members of the chorus, dressed in black, were on a riser. The orchestra and Hobson were on stage right.

Sullivan's sparkling melodies were played with sprightly elegance by the Sinfonia under Hobson's direction.

Dawn Harris, who had directed the Offenbach operetta the weekend before, here got delightful comic acting performances out of a strong cast.

The young romantic couple of Yvonne Gonzales Redman as Yum-Yum, and Benjamin Krumreig as Nanki-Poo sang and acted with appealing comic effect.

The male trio of courtiers and functionaries gave very engaging performances. They were Kyle Pollio as Ko-Ko, Michael O'Halloran as Pish-Tush and Robert Ker as Pooh-Bah.

With umbrellas twirling, Redman sang and danced artfully with director Harris as Pitti-Sing and Caitlin Powell as Peep-Bo.

One of W.S. Gilbert's less admirable traits was his obsession with mocking plain middle-aged women.

Bethany Stiles, as the dreadful Katisha, worked up a suitable tempest in this comic teapot.

Ricardo Herrera, from his first mock heroic entry as the Mikado, gave a superbly nuanced performance. His patter song about "the punishment fitting the crime" was a droll climax of the evening.

The 15 choristers sang enthusiastically, especially in the Act I finale.

Some of the songs are such classics that "G&S" fans know them by heart. But Gilbert's dialogue also has its treasures.

I heard Act I from a seat in the balcony, and the echo up there blurred the dialog almost completely. I moved downstairs after intermission and the spoken dialog came through there much more clearly.

A row of microphones was lined up at the lip of the stage, and the singing actors performed more or less close to them, with mixed results.

With all the musical delights of the evening, I cannot deny that semi-staging the "Mikado" puts a heavy strain on the willing suspension of disbelief.

Such an extravagant fantasia on a never-never Japan needs a stage setting to achieve full effect. But I am grateful for the abundant pleasures of Friday's performance.

Offenbach vs. Gilbert and Sullivan? They make an odd trio.

Offenbach's 1858 "Orpheus" is an early cynical, satirical work. His 1868 "La Perichole" would make a better comparison with Gilbert and Sullivan. Offenbach's street singer rocketing to the status of the mistress of the Viceroy of Peru has something of the Gilbertian flair.

But Offenbach seldom had a librettist on the genius level of Gilbert. And Gilbert's special talent was to combine extravagant improbabilities with satirical insights into the everyday foibles of human nature. Offenbach vs. "G&S", musical emblems of very different national characters, represent a lyrical "tale of two cities," and so, "Vive la diffrence!"

Do present day Japanese enjoy "The Mikado"?

Well, this work was not performed for a long time in Japan, where representations of the Emperor of Japan were banned on stage. But in 2001, the town of Chichibu (assumed by the Japanese to be the original of G&S's "Titipu") staged an adaptation of "The Mikado" in Japanese.

It has been a success, and it was played at the 2006 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Great Britain, where it was enthusiastically received.

To the usual Gilbert and Sullivan score were added a Japanese teiko drum sequence and a Japanese ballet scene towards the end of Act II. So when will the "Chichibu" version tour the U.S.?

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

Topics (2):Music, Theater

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